The battle between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins for the trainer’s championship will be just a part of the Punchestown Festival this year, but it will be a big part of it.
Going into the meeting, Elliott has a lead of just over €520,000 over Mullins, but it appears as if Mullins has the stronger Punchestown team, and it is a massive week with a total of €3 million in prize money up for grabs.
There is €162,250 up for grabs for the winner of the feature race on Tuesday, the BoyleSports Champion Chase (5.30), and Mullins has the first three favourites, a formidable trio in Douvan, Min and Un De Sceaux. He also has Ballycasey to back them up.
Elliott also has four runners in the race, but only Doctor Phoenix is shorter than 50/1 at present. It would be a surprise if Mullins didn’t win the race and, with over €50,000 for the second and almost €25,000 for the third, the places are important too. Mullins could have more than one horse in the first three.
In the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (4.20), a €100,000 race with €59,000 going to the winner, Mullins again fields the warm favourite in Getabird, while he also has Sharjah, Whiskey Sour and Draconien to represent him. Elliott’s trio is headed by Mengli Khan.
Mengli Khan is a very talented novice hurdler and he had Getabird well behind him when he finished third in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. However, Getabird beat him by nine lengths when they met going right-handed in the Moscow Flyer Hurdle at Punchestown in January. They are going right-handed again on Tuesday but Mengli Khan is 6lb better off. There may not be much between them.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained Monalee tops the market for the other Grade 1 race on Tuesday, the Growise Champion Novice Chase (6.40), with Al Boum Photo for Mullins and Shattered Love for Elliott put in as second and third favourites. There was only one length between that pair in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse, and there may not be much between them again here, over a half a mile further.
The Goffs Land Rover Bumper (6.05) is the other six-figure race on Tuesday, and Elliott has four in it, including favourite Commander Of Fleet, who finished alone in his only point-to-point. Mullins just has one representative, Think Positive, who finished fourth in a bumper at Towcester last November on his only run to date. He can do better this time, on his first run for Mullins, and it is not surprising that he has been put in as second favourite.
The Coral Punchestown Gold Cup (5.30) is the feature race on Wednesday, with its winner’s purse of €162,250 and, once again, it is a non-Mullins, non-Elliott horse who heads the market in the form of the Noel Meade-trained Road To Respect.
Mullins has a strong team for the race, however, with Bellshill, Djakadam, Killultagh Vic and Total Recall all set to represent him. Elliott has just Outlander in it and, once again here, it’s advantage Mullins.
It’s advantage Mullins too in the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle (4.55), with Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle thirdNext Destination, stepping up to three miles for the first time, heading the market, and Ballyward and Brahma Bull also set to take their chances. But Elliott has Delta Work and Blow By Blow, both handicap hurdle winners at the Cheltenham Festival, as well as Lackaneen Leader, and all of them will have to fend off Colin Tizzard’s horse Kilbricken Storm, winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Mullins fields his 1-2-3 from the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival, Relegate, Carefully Selected and Tornado Flyer, in the Racing Post Champion Bumper (6.05), and he also fields the fifth, Blackbow, who was sent off as second favourite at Cheltenham. Elliott will be represented by the Cheltenham Bumper sixth Felix Desjy, as well as Fairyhouse winner Getaway John and the exciting Rapid Escape. It is a deep race.
That’s just the first two days. Footpad will be a warm order for Mullins in the Ryanair Novice Chase (6.40) on Thursday, and Penhill, Bacardys and Coquin Mans could present a formidable Mullins challenge in the Champion Stayers Hurdle (5.30) on the same day.
Then on Friday, we still don’t know where Samcro is going to run. Elliott’s superstar novice could run in the Profile Systems Champion Novice Hurdle (6.05), where he could meet Laurina, or he could take his chance in the Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle (5.30). If he goes down that route, if he takes on Melon and Wicklow Brave, that could be the race of the week.
There may not be much between Apple’s Jade (Elliott) and Benie Des Dieux (Mullins) in the Annie Power Mares’ Champion Hurdle (3.50) on Saturday, and there may not be much between Farclas (Elliott) and Mr Adjudicator (Mullins) and Stormy Ireland (Mullins) in the AES Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle (4.20). That’s the last day of the season. This could go all the way to the wire.